Sunday, June 23, 2024

The depressing truth about TikTok’s impending ban

Computer scienceThe depressing truth about TikTok’s impending ban

That 2020 executive order came to nothing in the end—it was blocked in the courts, put aside after the presidency changed hands, and eventually withdrawn by the Biden administration. Yet the idea—that the US government should ban TikTok in some way—never went away. It would repeatedly be suggested in different forms and shapes. And eventually, on April 24, 2024, things came full circle.

A lot has changed in the four years between these two news cycles. Back then, TikTok was a rising sensation that many people didn’t understand; now, it’s one of the biggest social media platforms, the originator of a generation-defining content medium, and a music-industry juggernaut. 

What has also changed is my outlook on the issue. For a long time, I thought TikTok would find a way out of the political tensions, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about its future. And I have even less hope for other Chinese tech companies trying to go global. If the TikTok saga tells us anything, it’s that their Chinese roots will be scrutinized forever, no matter what they do.

I don’t believe TikTok has become a larger security threat now than it was in 2020. There have always been issues with the app, like potential operational influence by the Chinese government, the black-box algorithms that produce unpredictable results, and the fact that parent company ByteDance never managed to separate the US side and the China side cleanly, despite efforts (one called Project Texas) to store and process American data locally. 

But none of those problems got worse over the last four years. And interestingly, while discussions in 2020 still revolved around potential remedies like setting up data centers in the US to store American data or having an organization like Oracle audit operations, those kinds of fixes are not in the law passed this year. As long as it still has Chinese owners, the app is not permissible in the US. The only thing it can do to survive here is transfer ownership to a US entity. 

That’s the cold, hard truth not only for TikTok but for other Chinese companies too. In today’s political climate, any association with China and the Chinese government is seen as unacceptable. It’s a far cry from the 2010s, when Chinese companies could dream about developing a killer app and finding audiences and investors around the globe—something many did pull off. 

There’s something I wrote four years ago that still rings true today: TikTok is the bellwether for Chinese companies trying to go global. 

The majority of Chinese tech giants, like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, operate primarily within China’s borders. TikTok was the first to gain mass popularity in lots of other countries across the world and become part of daily life for people outside China. To many Chinese startups, it showed that the hard work of trying to learn about foreign countries and users can eventually pay off, and it’s worth the time and investment to try.

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